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Beauty and horror

State Theatre
04/24/2018 -  & 26, 28, April, 1, 5, 10, May 2018
Giacomo Puccini: Tosca
Latonia Moore (Tosca), Diego Torre (Cavaradossi), Marco Vratogna (Scarpia), Gennadi Dubinsky (Angelotti), Luke Gabbedy (Sacristan), Benjamin Rasheed (Spoletta), Michael Honeyman (Sciarrone), Tom Hamilton (Gaoler), Harry Hendel (Shepherd Boy)
Opera Australia Chorus, Anthony Hunt (Chorus Master), Opera Australia Children’s Chorus, Michael Curtain (Chorus Master), Orchestra Victoria, Rachael Beesley (Concert Master), Andrea Battistoni (Conductor)
John Bell (Director), Michael Scott-Mitchell (Set Designer), Teresa Negroponte (Costume Designer), Nick Schlieper (Lighting Designer), Hugh Halliday (Revival Director), Nigel Poulton (Fight Choreographer)

B. Rasheed, D. Torre, L. Moore, M. Vratogna (© Jeff Busby)

For this season’s second offering, Opera Australia again revives a massively successful production of Tosca by renowned Director-Performer, John Bell. Again, they fill the massive theatre with a younger-than-usual crowd who received the performance with cheers, whistles and stamping reminiscent of a football final.

John Bell realises the outrage elements of this “shabby little shocker” in Nazi-dominated Rome during World War 2. He emphasizes the sexual threat from Scarpia who enjoys “a woman who fights back”. From the first appearance of the Gestapo and Swastika flags during the Act 1 Te Deum, we are on edge waiting for the next move from the capricious monster who grips this city. The congregation’s tentative return of his salute makes it clear that they know what is necessary to survive and this element of dread pervades the entire show.

In this world art, culture, music and history are juxtaposed against the violence and barbarity of a regime spiralling out of control. Yet, an air of normality pervades: pride in appearance, crisply ironed uniforms and glamourous interiors, until that is, we reach the barbed-wire Hell of the final Act.

Through shocks and symbolism, this show draws on massive emotional investment from the audience to overcome the two-dimensionality of good versus evil. Mr Bell populates his production with ambiguity as the population are caught between a change of political power and uncertainty about their future. There are moments of great pathos and urgency set against quiet humour at Tosca’s jealousy of her lover’s perceived infidelity. There are moments of total brutality set against gorgeous backgrounds and the higher achievements of art and music. There are moments of outright shock as Tosca hurls herself into the barrage of machine gun fire and is draped over a barbed wire net at the conclusion.

This is a riveting show which reduced the audience to ‘pin-drop’ silence then riotous applause. Suffice it to say that the vigorous booing of Scarpia at the curtain calls speaks loudly of total audience commitment and involvement. It is clear to see why Opera Australia has revived this production so soon after its 2014 presentation in Melbourne: the audience love it and the second viewing only increases the appreciation of Mr Bell’s intent.

Latonia Moore has previously sung two roles for Opera Australia – Aida and Elizabeth de Valois – in Sydney. This Tosca is her introduction to Melbourne audiences and she was very favourably received. From the first appearance in Act 1 we are convinced: the quality and power of her singing, the subtlety and nuance of her acting and the exquisite melding of her musicality with the voices of the two leading men are all testament to a sublime talent. Her voice is immense; soaring majestically to its high register and falling seamlessly and delicately into the chest notes, her range seems effortless and without flaws. The upper reach is blazingly bright, quite breath-taking in its intensity; the lower notes, rich, dark and velvety – every inch the temptress. Of course the “Vissi d’arte” was a show-stopper which brought the house to thundering approval, so too had been her “Non la sospiri” from the first Act. It was however, the beauty of her duets in both acts which mark her as a splendid ensemble artist.

Reprising his performance as Cavaradossi, Diego Torre has developed this role into a signature for his increasingly superb voice. He is easy within this character and it shows in the confidence of his stage persona and the frequency with which he lets fly his blistering upper notes, sustained, assured and vigorous. The sheer brilliance and quality of his “Recondita armonia” brought new understanding to Puccini’s label of “Romanza”. The sustained final note melted through the theatre drawing rapturous audience response and hinting at the fine performance to come. In duets his voice was a perfect partner for Ms Moore: richly blended, perfectly poised and in total command of the colours with which they painted.

Scarpia has to be more evil than imaginable and Marco Vratogna in his first outing for Opera Australia made marvellous use of Bell’s direction, plunging this role to new depths of depravity and violence. He relished the others’ pain; he revelled in generating sexual fear and he spared no woman, even the humble secretary from the force of his lust. His voice is agile and potent with emotion. He easily conquered the orchestra and chorus in Act 1 and subjugated all to his demands during the torture scene of Act 2, at once aroused by the rising panic of Tosca while delighting in the off-stage groans of pain from Mario. His performance in the death scene was riveting acting showing him to be an artist of awe-inspiring talent.

In a second tumultuously welcomed debut, conductor Andrea Battistoni lead Orchestra Victoria at a blistering pace through Act 1, contrasting with more calculated, reflective tempi in Act 2, culminating in urgency as the action of the final act spirals out of the protagonists’ control. This was a galvanising performance and we can only look forward hopefully to Maestro Battistoni’s possible future engagement for OA.

What a great night at the theatre! What a triumph for the company and all the artists!

Gregory Pritchard



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